In this deep dive of a conversation with seasoned facilitators Ceri Rees and Kevan Gilbert, we turn our attention to small-scale listening and its big-scale impact: on our relationships at work and ultimately in our work itself. Focusing in on interpersonal and group dynamics and drawing from Ceri and Kevan’s facilitation experience, we explore ways to intentionally create environments that welcome skillful listening. And we discuss the work of achieving a balance of safety and assertion: asking ourselves how we can avoid empty exercises and instead share truly valuable exchanges of ideas and perspectives. It’s a a well-informed, expansive and yet intimate conversation that left us more attuned to our own listening practices in our everyday work life and gatherings.
The Way We Listen, with Ceri Rees
As Domain7's VP, People & Partnerships, Ceri is our team's resident expert when it comes to building constructive relationships between teams and in complex, innovative projects. Ceri's road to facilitation includes past experience in academic administration, branding and innovation. With Master’s degrees in Theology (UBC) and Biochemistry (Oxford), Ceri’s unique approach to blending analytical acuity, empirical knowledge, and relational wisdom has made her an expert strategist and clarifying voice on conflict resolution, empathy, assertion, and the human element of digital transformation.
Kevan brings wisdom from over a decade of experience leading award-winning digital strategies for a wide variety of institutions and businesses. A seasoned and engaging facilitator and speaker who has been with Domain7 since 2010, Kevan has helped shape our collaborative and people-centric culture. He’s studied design thinking and innovation processes at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
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Veronica: Welcome to Change is in the Making. On our last episode, we talked about listening to our communities. Today, we’re going to talk about listening to our colleagues. They’re often called internal stakeholders, staff, or teammates, but at the end of the day, we’re simply talking about the people we work with in our offices every day.
Kevan: Listening is more important than we tend to acknowledge. It’s the foundation of moving towards innovation and it’s also a cornerstone of just human wellbeing. Research shows it’s from a foundation of empathy from which new ideas emerge, and what is it that builds that empathy? It’s listening.
Veronica: Here with us today to unpack the fundamentals of effective listening is our director of engagement, Ceri Rees. Ceri’s past career experience has spanned a diverse array of roles, from academic administration, to branding, and innovation. With masters degrees in theology from UBC and biochemistry from Oxford, she brings a unique approach to blending analytical acuity, empirical knowledge, and relational wisdom. Ceri has joined us on the show twice before. She joined me to talk about the importance of balancing empathy with assertion, and she made a cameo appearance when we followed her and Kevan to The Art of Hosting retreat on Bowen Island.
Veronica: Today, we’ll be drawing on her deep expertise, specifically in the art of listening, including the materials she’s developed for one of our most popular workshops at Domain7 called The Listening Lab. Ceri’s workshop equips participants with listening principles from the field of conflict resolution, and guides them through applying effective listening practices in a workplace environment. Ceri, welcome to the show today. We’re so delighted to have you in this conversation with us.
Ceri Rees: I’m excited to be here.
Veronica: Ceri and Kevan, to begin with, I was wondering if we might start with some stories that just illustrate the role of listening in an organization’s life and in our day-to-day work. Ceri, I know I’ve heard you share some illuminating examples before, just of how listening can be the skill that mobilizes innovation in our organizations, and was wondering if you had any that might start us out today.
Ceri Rees: Yeah. I’ve done a little bit of research into some of this as I’ve been preparing various talks over the last little while. Just a few examples come to mind and where we oftentimes can spend so much time talking about how we listen to our users, to our customers, and we try and bring that information forward. Then we just kind of assume and presume that we can just lump a big report on the desk and that’s our kind of panacea that’s going to answer all the questions that anybody has. Then we find that we hit roadblocks and for whatever reason, unbeknown to us, people are not quite so compelled, not quite so well persuaded by our user research as we hoped that they would be.
Ceri Rees: So then we have to do the work of getting our internal stakeholders or our colleagues on board, as you say, and it strikes me the number of just really interesting examples that are out there of innovations that either didn’t make it to market because they didn’t do that work, and innovations that almost didn’t make it to market because they almost didn’t do that work. One of the examples that comes to my mind there is around GPS, of course that ubiquitous technology that we all know and love. I was just parking here outside the Vancouver Library, my parking app knows exactly where I am and can help me. I’ve got my Fitbit, it’s tracking where I’m walking, and that’s before we even start talking Google Maps and mountain climbing and all those kinds of things. It’s hard to imagine a world without GPS, and yet we almost didn’t have it,
Ceri Rees: Back in the 70s, for some of the reading that I was doing, the perception was that that was really the idea itself was dead in the water within the US air force. Part of the perception there was just why would we be spending money on something like that? Is this a good use of our budget? Shouldn’t we be buying more airplanes doing things like that? Really it had been languishing for many, many years within that context, and it was when they brought in a new member of the team to kind of lead that effort. They were able to actually work through essentially what was a stakeholder issue and getting the buy-in that was necessary to kind of unlock that and bring it forward and to fruition. So it’s interesting to me, I don’t know if that’s an example of listening exactly, but I think it does speak to just the importance of the internal work that we need to do in our organizations so that these great ideas don’t just die kind of on the cutting room floor.
Veronica: Yeah, I know. Just thinking about that example and looking back on my own career, sometimes we have this mythology in corporate or organizational life that if an idea is great enough, it will just succeed. Like when we tell these entrepreneurs sort of success stories in retrospect, it’s like, “And the idea was,” the idea was the thing, right? The idea was so self-evident that it just sort of removed all barriers in its path. But we know from experience in our day-to-day life that it’s not that easy. Being able to communicate your vision for something effectively can feel really hard, sometimes harder than it needs to. And we often put a lot of emphasis on how we communicate that idea, but I hear you using the word listening even more, which is a bit of a shift.
Ceri Rees: Yeah, it is, and I think the reason for that is the story that I want to tell that’s compelling for me that would get me on board may leave you cold. I might be into ideas and vision and transformation, and someone else is very practical, wants to hear ROI and measurement and concrete steps and very granular. I think what listening enables us to do is to listen to another person to what’s important to them and help build those bridges between something that’s cool and exciting in my mind and what might be compelling for them in theirs. It becomes the doorway I think through which we can do the work of translation, that we need to not only sell an idea, because that sounds just a bit too kind of sleazy maybe, but to actually then draw on their wisdom and insights.
Ceri Rees: And as I do that work of trying to listen well to someone else’s interests, to their needs, then I suddenly find myself nuancing, building, growing the idea and actually layering in new pieces that if all we’d done was look for the shiny penny, which might’ve been my approach, we’ll miss some important things. But when we really listen well together, we not only bring people with us, but I think we grow and improve the fundamental kind of concept or idea or the thought that we had.
Veronica: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I can remember different times, different experiences where either somebody was trying to inspire me with their vision and I pretty much had to do it because of their position, or where I was actually bought in myself. Often where I was bought in was because I was listened to, I was engaged in the idea. Yeah.
Ceri Rees: Which kind of goes to an even deeper kind of listening in lots of respects. I think of some work I’m doing, I’m in a volunteer capacity at the moment in a community based organization, and it would be very easy in … we need to have some big conversations together as a community and it would be easy to overlay a process on that community and say, “This is how we’re going to do, and we’re going going to listen well together. This is what we will do.”
Veronica: You will listen.
Ceri Rees: Yes. Well, and even so we would, but to reframe that even more deeply and say, “How do we even listen well together to design the conversation itself,” and to bring other voices in so that when we get to that point where we’re saying, “Guys, we need to have some big conversations here,” we’re doing that in times and places and ways and contexts that make sense, because it’s what the community asked for. We listened not just as an act or a thing that we did in a moment in time, but as a fundamental foundation laying work that we can do together.
Veronica: Kevan, when Ceri says fundamental foundation laying work, that feels close to home. I feel like that’s something that we’ve leaned in to at Domain7 and you’ve been part of designing that. I wonder if you … Sorry about the click there. I’m going to start that again. I wonder if you might tell a little bit about how we’ve leaned into that with our team.
Kevan: I just love what you guys have been saying. It’s wonderful. I just could listen to you guys all day. It’s like, “Why do I have to talk?”
Veronica: We need you. We need our Kevan.
Kevan: This is really good. Thank you Veronica. What I’m hearing as you talk, Ceri, is this assumption that how we treat the community matters, and in some organizations that’s true. Maybe they are community based organizations, maybe they’re governments, maybe they’re just workplaces that tilt a little bit more towards health and wellbeing of people, but also just to acknowledge not everybody is there or could get there or can assume that how we include and involve the community through a process is among our top measurements and goals. So that’s interesting.
Kevan: I think as I say that it’s sort of this encouragement to say, we might today not be in spots where our colleagues are expecting listening. They may not even be expecting there to be mutual exchange, mutual respect that takes them on a process, takes them on a journey. But we could still surprise that culture by being listeners anyways.
Ceri Rees: I think that’s exactly right Kevan. I think even in terms of our own culture at Domain7, I think that can be a shift for some folks coming in from other organizations where maybe that hasn’t been the kind of modus operandi. There’s a kind of retraining almost, but a resetting of expectations, because I think … The idea of listening presupposes I guess a level of vulnerability, a level of acknowledgement of people’s needs, that people have needs, that there’s a place to bring them forward, that they will be heard and well received and not used against us. You’re right, that’s not true in all organizations, and there can be a fear in that, a vulnerability, “If I bring this forward, will I be looking as though I’m piking out, I’m not delivering on my end of the bargain here,” or something like that. Whereas I think in our context, we’re really trying to say, “No, we want to hear from you. You have a voice and it’s important that you bring it forward,” but that cultural shift that you’re speaking about I think can be significant for people.
Veronica: Yeah. Kevan, I’m just remembering a workshop that we did not too long ago in our Vancouver studio space that I believe you were facilitating where a director of a team was saying, “I’ve tried to listen to my team. They tell me they just want to be told what to do. They don’t want to provide feedback. They’re not motivated to and I can’t seem to get them interested in being real with me, sharing with me their ideas. I don’t want to be the dictator here.” I remember her saying that, but they just don’t seem interested what happens in those cultures.
Kevan: Wow. I remember the sort of deep sigh that came with her sharing that in the room, hearing it, because it’s both familiar and it’s unfortunate, and it seems to be that there’s a time and a place to get things done and to just have specific orders issued, that’s fine. That’s sometimes a work style that is necessary. If a group of people have shut down their willingness to take part in a conversation, it might mean that trust has been broken before. If I’m remembering correctly, this is an organization that had gone through a series of really hard times, where it’s likely that people had been burnt by being too open and realized that the safest way path through organizational culture was going to be by just doing your job, stay in your lane. So it becomes rare and even unsafe to engage in that kind of vulnerable process as Ceri is saying, and yet if we bring ourselves back to what we were saying at the beginning, is the potential of this process, like why take that risk?
Kevan: The reason is because we think the better ideas can come through this type of exchange. We also think that the culture can heal by taking that risk. You can start to build that healthier organizational fabric if you choose to engage in this manner, and that that has a downstream effect on you as the actual individual in your holistic life. It’s that holistic aim that we would say, “Even if you’re not in a spot where it feels safe today, it’s worth that journey because getting there changes so many things.”
Ceri Rees: Kevan, the irony of that little anecdote there is that the way through this blocker to listening is listening itself. What does it look like to get curious and to ask questions and to say, “I’m noticing this resistance. What’s going on for you here? What’s in that backstory that we maybe need to look at and make some changes through it.” So yeah, the road forward is kind of through the tool itself.
Veronica: There is, Ceri, I think you used the word vulnerability, which I feel like is a word that comes up a fair amount when we talk about cultural facilitation, cultural healing, creating environments where people and healthy innovation can thrive. That leads to the question of safety. Like I have been in situations before where I’ve been very frank and asked to be frank, and it has backfired in places that just weren’t ready for it, thought they were but weren’t. What are some principles of safety and inviting this kind of candid communication within organizations?
Ceri Rees: Yeah, I think for me, when I’m working with clients, perhaps I’m leading a workshop or beginning and engagement together, I’ll spend a lot of time actually asking that question, not even to overlay my own sense of what might create safety, but to ask members of the group, “What does safe mean for you?” Safety is one word that we can use. I like the language of kind of courage as well, what do courageous spaces look like? In which there may be a risk, and indeed it may not go as I had hoped, but it’s nevertheless an environment in which I’m willing to be courageous and put myself forward. So I think getting people to start speaking that out is so, so helpful, not as a kind of tick box exercise at the beginning, but as a real beginning point for the kind of listening work that we need to do together.
Ceri Rees: Can I look you in the eye and hear you as you say, “This is what I need in this conversation for me to engage well. Also here’s what I’m willing to offer.”? I’m always, I’m not surprised, I’m always heartened every time I do that when the very things that people are saying, you know, “For me to engage well I need this.” Then of course that was with the right hand and then with the left, everybody’s answering their own needs. I think that, that, it becomes a social contract that people kind of create, certainly for the duration of that interaction. But I hope also for other interactions that they may go on to have in the course of their normal day-to-day lives.
Veronica: Kevan, I’m remembering a listening activity that we did to open our last all team offsite, our retreat. It was very simple and I personally loved it. My personality loved it. We just went around, we had the entire, everyone who could make it, the entire company there in a large circle. We went around with some opening questions, I believe it was something like, “What are you bringing to this moment? What are you hoping to get from it? What do you feel you could contribute?” something like that.
Kevan: Yeah, exactly. What do you bring in here?
Veronica: Yeah. I remember, I think it really set a beautiful tone, and most people seemed to really warm to it, and everybody spoke, which was wonderful to hear every voice. I remember there was some feedback, some anonymous feedback afterwards when we collected feedback on the event, and a couple of people or maybe it was just one said, “I’m not comfortable with public speaking,” and so that was difficult. You and I were surprised to hear that described as public speaking, but it would make sense for certain individuals, and as we’re talking about safety to express vulnerability, I’m wondering … I think it’s easy for some of us more facilitator or speaker types to assume that something is safe for people that might not be. Is there something in setting up the format of these types of conversations as well?
Kevan: I love that you brought that up. I was thinking about that as well. The feedback said, “I’m not very comfortable with a mandatory public speaking.”
Veronica: Mandatory, yeah.
Kevan: Yeah, that’s the word that stuck up too, it’s the-
Veronica: Which is not the spirit that we were going for.
Kevan: No, “You must share something,” but if that’s how it’s coming across, then it’s true for that person. They felt put on the spot and told to share something, and that’s the opposite of courage and vulnerability. That’s just be compliant.
Veronica: Yeah, duress.
Kevan: Yeah. It sort of changed how I see those spaces. When you’re facilitating with people you work with and people that you don’t, there’s space cues that can ask for vulnerability, like a circle, and like going around to hear from everybody. That sometimes creates unsafety. So, we try to pivot in a later workshop to literally give people their own desks in the workshop, to create a barrier between me and them and between them and the other people, because we knew the topics we were going to get to were going to be a little less comfortable. So why not give people sort of a shield and a station that they can rest at to have those conversations, instead of demanding or making mandatory this sense of opening up.
Ceri Rees: It’s interesting though, isn’t it? I’m thinking here, Kevan, of some of Priya Parker’s work in, what’s the name of that book?
Kevan: The Art of Gathering.
Veronica: The Art of Gathering.
Ceri Rees: The Art of Gathering, quite, and I think there is … it depends on the context and this is not true in every situation, but I think if you have an intentional gathering, then let’s gather intentionally. Part of that intentional gathering is an expectation of participation, which can look indeed in many different ways and many different formats.
Veronica: Yeah. I’m just thinking about also the language of parenting where I was speaking to a friend who is a therapist and talking about like when you have those, not that organizational cultures are exactly like parenting, but when you have those breaks with your child where you are suddenly having a bit of a meltdown maybe on both sides. Something she said to me is, “It’s always what comes after that’s most important,” the connection after. Similarly I was thinking about, if something’s triggering for someone or feels very vulnerable for someone, in my own experience, it’s what the group does with what you shared, or what comes from that maybe slightly uncomfortable place. After that builds trust and that’s where the cultural healing and I think personal healing too can come from, that it just feels like such an important part of this equation, is like, “What do you do with what is shared?”
Ceri Rees: Yeah, that’s exactly right. One of the interesting pieces of research in this whole space from [inaudible 00:22:49], a biologist doing some work in the animal realm, he was really concerned that this whole kind of Darwinism survival of the fittest was being applied at a societal level in terms of our human relationships and kind of presuming then that people were fundamentally selfish. Then you get the selfish gene and all of this. He just said, “I wonder if that’s true.” So he started exploring in the animal kingdom and with primates and doing a bunch of experiments with chimpanzees. What he noticed in that was that if you were to have some kind of inequity, an unequal distribution of food between chimpanzees, then the chimps, A, knew that there was an inaccuracy, which is interesting. But that B, they would make a response that they would cry, scream, kind of make a fuss to say, “I have been dealt with unjustly.”
Ceri Rees: What’s so interesting in that is that typically then you would see the other chimpanzees saying, “Yeah. He has a point. Okay. Let’s do this properly and kind of set things right.” But if that didn’t happen, then what happens is that chimpanzee will go off in the corner as it were, become very dejected, very despondent, and really become quite withdrawn. I think what’s so interesting in that is it really resonates with us, doesn’t it?
Ceri Rees: We feel that in ourselves. We know that when we put our truth out there and it’s ignored or not handled well, then it has that effect on us. But what also stands out to me in that is it actually takes the vulnerability of someone putting their hand up and making a fuss and saying, “I have been dealt with unjustly.” Otherwise we all kind of go about our work and don’t think anything of it. We just enjoy the bowl of peanuts that we’ve been given. So I think there is a fundamental vulnerability that is necessary in this work of listening well together.
Veronica: Yeah, and it’s hard to do in organizations where you want to sometimes just fit in, not make a fuss, not rock the boat, help things run smoothly. It’s hard to raise your hand and say, “Not enough food over here.”
Kevan: Yeah. I think that story highlights too the damage that can get caused when we don’t create this space for listening, is what you start to see is behavior that is about withdrawing and disengaging, people building their cynicism up, or even just feeling a sense of, “I’m not valued here and I’m not wanted here.” When we talk about how do we create spaces for people to engage, it’s because the opposite of doing that is to create spaces where people’s contributions are minimized and where we’re simply working at a much reduced capacity. That’s where I bring to mind teammates and colleagues who maybe have found difficulty bringing their whole contribution to bear, and standing up their offering because there’s not a space to be listened to, and thus the hole the company suffers. That’s why this pathway matters.
Ceri Rees: Yeah. I think that goes both ways, that that can happen when it’s not a safe space. But it can also happen when it is a safe space but I’m not willing to be vulnerable and come forward. So there is that mutuality of responsibility to myself and community that I’m willing to step out into a community that will hear me. That story illustrates, and Kevan, you picked it up in as well, yes, people become dejected and despondent, kind of very … you become increasingly inward focused. I think you just kind of heads down get through, get out the door. But I think one of the other things that can happen when we stop listening well together is all we have to go on then is kind of external actions, and we see a thing and we then overlay it with meaning, which has everything to do as you were saying, Veronica, with me, my back story, previous experiences I’ve had, and very little to do with the intent that that individual may have had.
Ceri Rees: So I think when we stop listening together, we stop being able to probe those places and probe assumptions and say, “Hey, I saw this thing. I’m realizing I’m having a reaction, but I’m wondering what was going on there for you,” and actually kind of realizing, “It was nothing to do with me. It was something completely different.” So I think what you can then see is this rise in politics and storytelling and conflict ultimately when that really comes to a boiling point. Well, the good kind of conflict, but just that kind of explosive, “I’m finally so mad that I will say a thing,” because we failed to listen to one another and to get curious and to ask good questions.
Veronica: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like we all know the organizational thing that happens where there’s a narrative that starts to circulate, that may or may not be based in any sort of truth, but it’s contagious. To cut through that is to listen to … I was just thinking of an experience I had the other week where I was hearing something probably third hand that was not positive. Then the next day I had a conversation with the person themself at the heart of the whole thing and was just like blown away by their honesty and how hard they’re trying, and had a complete like, “Was the reality the opposite of what I thought it was the day before?” Not exactly the opposite, but I had so much more insight into the life and reality of the person at the center of the situation who’s just trying their best and who has good intentions, and the shift in how you see your role in that, how you can help, what’s actually happening is huge when you hear from the person themselves, the story itself.
Veronica: Kevan, I was wondering, I feel like in your facilitation in particular, I’ve seen you in a lot of situations where you’ve had to navigate interesting dynamics where the space’s safety has maybe created an opportunity for someone to co-opt it or take over, or maybe not engage in the way we are ideally hoping when we design these facilitations. What do you do with that as a leader and a host in these situations where it’s like, “Okay. We’ve achieved psychological safety. People are being vulnerable. Now we have sort of a maverick who’s just running off with the clock or maybe being difficult, maybe not being helpful.” It’s happened to all of us, but what are some ways you step into that space?
Kevan: Absolutely. What comes to mind besides the racing heart I’m getting now just replaying some of these moments, I was remembering a scenario we had just a few weeks ago. I was facilitating somewhere else and we had just presented a decent amount of content when a person spoke up to say, “What’s different about this approach? I feel like I’ve heard this before and this is nothing new.”
Veronica: Old news.
Kevan: At the same time, my phone is buzzing in my pocket and I glance down to check the time to see how much time I have to answer this question, and I’m getting a message from somebody else that’s kind of urgent. I’m like, “Oh my gosh! Pressure on the room, pressure on my phone, how much time can I give to this? How much attention can I give to this?” And just the spotlight is on me, I got to answer this question.
Kevan: In previous facilitation moments, I would feel threatened and I would feel defensive. I would want to explain how the content is valuable and, “Here’s the value proposition. Now you see it, please believe in me.” But what I was able to do in that moment was to welcome this person’s contribution to say, “Thanks for saying that,” and I asked her a followup question to say, “Is it true that this is something that you know and is it also true that everybody else in your organization knows this?” The answer was to that, “No, not everybody else knows this. It’s something that my team knows.”
Kevan: So I was able to say then, “In what ways could you see yourself as an ambassador and co-teacher of this stuff for people who still need to get to the level that you are at? If you’re comfortable with it, you can be a leader and a champion of helping other people get there too,” and it empowered her as an agent, it welcomed her contribution, and it also just let me not have to be defensive. I’m not trying to pretend that I have the answers. I’m trying to do quite the opposite. I think that in those moments, often people who are raising concerns have a ton to offer if you can create the space for them to see their contribution as valuable, and that means like shutting down a little bit of your own worry on the spot.
Ceri Rees: I really love that, Kevan. I was thinking a similar thing as well earlier just reflecting on this idea of yeah, what do you do in spaces co-opted? Partly that part of me that said, “How often is that really true?” Like I think there are times when people bring truly unhelpful contributions that, again, Priya Parker’s language, she uses the language of generous authority to actually exercise a generous authority in the room. Call people back to time, call people back to the purpose of a gathering or a question or a conversation. All of those things are appropriate not in service of yourself or your own needs or your own desire to have facilitated a good session, but in service of other people in the room who have again signed up to a kind of social contract for a period of time to engage in a certain set of activities towards a certain end. And if they’re being really pulled far away from that, then that’s something that we as hosts or facilitators need to step into.
Ceri Rees: But I was thinking such a similar thing, Kevan, of how often is that really true and how often are those moments actually the moment-
Kevan: The moment, yes.
Ceri Rees: … that we needed in the room? I see that in someone says the thing that has been underlying the surface the whole time. For me I kind of love it because I think better out than in. If that is in the room, I’d much rather it be in the room than slightly beneath the surface. Then we get to engage in together. We get to talk it through together, and Kevan, I love the wisdom of how you approach that. I wonder sometimes, this is a true question for me, maybe we can discuss it, but how can we use the wisdom of the room even to address that question, which is partly what you did there. You said, “Is this familiar for others in the room as well?” And people said no. But I’m curious, what would it look like to say, “So Betty Ann has said this thing. I’m curious how that sounds to folk. What are you hearing in that? What’s going on for you?”
Ceri Rees: And then actually using that as the moment for people to say, “Well, I’m really struggling. It feels like a really negative comment in a really constructive space that we’ve been trying to create,” or whatever. Then you get to have the conversation and work it through. I feel as though our work as hosts and facilitators is to create the space and the creative confidence to say, “We’re not afraid to have those hard conversations. Let’s do it well together.” People don’t always have those skills. We can help with that. We can help that super negative comment that looks like it’s going to spiral down. We can pick it up and we can turn it and we can reframe it into like a positive value or a thing that actually we would all align on and use it for that teaching moment. I think for me, I might be funny in this, those moments are some of my favorites.
Kevan: I love that so much. I just love how you’ve said that Ceri. I think you’re exactly right. It’s those moments that we’re here for. That’s why we’re listening. It’s to get to the challenging stuff so we can move through it productively. I love those suggestions you’ve brought forward for ways to do that. A phrase that one of our former colleagues used to say is, “Fan the discontent,” and when you’re hearing something that sounds uncomfortable, like go there, ask more about that. That’s what needs to come up.
Kevan: I was thinking of a session we did just a couple of weeks ago where somebody in a relatively large gathering happened to be very unfamiliar with this mode, or this type of process. So his contributions were definitely nontraditional. He was a little bit more blunt and outspoken and challenging than you’d conventionally find in a workshop space. You could see that other people in the room were uncomfortable with that style of contribution and sort of expected me as a facilitator to shut the person down to show them how to really contribute. But what we found is by asking that person to clarify their stance, to explain a little bit more about what’s behind it, that their contributions became the core of the whole matter we were trying to design together. That their perspective, stated bluntly and slightly uncomfortably, had exactly the thing we came here to find, and it didn’t go away for the entirety of those sessions together. It became the center because somebody had the ability to name it and call it out, and we welcomed it into the room. I just think you’re exactly right, Ceri, in how you’ve phrased that.
Ceri Rees: I have a related story in a similar way a year or so ago. I was facilitating a session with a client. There was probably 35 people in the room, which was about 25 more than we really wanted and needed, which was its own challenge. But we’d set up the entire premise of the conversation that we were having, that we were looking at a deep … the foundational pieces were laid and we were going to now look at this deeper question. At a certain point someone said, “But I have a problem with the fundamental principles that we’ve set out here. I don’t think they’re right. So I can’t talk about these levels deeper,” and it is. It’s a stressful moment in that moment to say, “What are you going to do with that?” And kind of had our wits about this and we were able to just actually say, “We need to attend to this because, again, this is in the room and if we don’t attend to it, what’s going to happen is it’s going to spiral and everything is going to be kind of thrown off kilter by it.”
Ceri Rees: So we spent some time in the room together as a whole group, and again, I was trying to do that. There was becoming a narrative of this is bad and this is terrible and this is awful. So rather than let it do that, I was trying to say, “Okay. So wherever we get to, it’s going to be important for you that we address X, Y, and Z.” You can see the energy for those individuals kind of relax as they’re being heard, they’re being kind of brought into the conversation, but also the energy of others in the room as well who probably knew that those frustrations existed and were wondering curious what was going to happen with it. Then we were able to actually course-correct some of the activities we were doing and say, “Okay. You know what? We’re going to have a small group that’s going to look at this approach that you’ve brought forward and see what could be brought forward there.”
Ceri Rees: Again, this will sound bad, but you kind of quarantine the conversation in a way in that way, which is good because it insulates from other conversations that we do need to have. Also genuinely good things came from it that were important for the conversation.
Veronica: I feel like it’s back to the question of what’s your goal with the gathering or with the listening activity? I’m just thinking of like a contrast between two different types of listening gatherings that I’ve been part of. One is the recent strata meeting where everyone in our building was listening to the strata council present some things, and it was definitely that more traditional persuasive kind of presentation where it’s like any hands that were raised with anything that was like a challenge to the decided course of action, or something maybe a little negative was shutdown very authoritatively with a persuasive speech very quickly. I was like, “This feels very familiar from …” Like it’s more traditional, right? We’ve all been in those more authoritarian sort of environments.
Veronica: At the other end, I feel like sometimes when we try to create the softer more listening environments, we can all start playing a little too nice maybe, and that’s as somebody who really is a peacemaker and loves peacemaking. But where we’re all reading the room so carefully, coaching our words so carefully that we’re staying on the surface, right? We’re kind of doing a different kind of persuasion and social conformity where we’re all sort of saying the same thing in slightly different tones of voice. But what I hear you guys talking about is, I think Brené Brown calls it like rumbling with something, like being willing to welcome the dissonance, welcome the friction, and say, “That’s where the actual work of innovation is,” and that’s why we’d go to all this trouble anyway. Not to have a tea party or not just to convince people of something we already know we’re going to do, but to actually discover a change that’s going to make a healthy difference for us.
Kevan: Absolutely. I love how you’ve said that Veronica. What you were saying at the beginning of that was about being clear on your purpose and your goals. I think you have the ability to set a tone and expectation right from the get go that we’re going to get into that kind of rumble. I was thinking back to a session, the same one where the individual I mentioned was bringing what was perceived as unhelpful contributions that ended up being core to the challenge. The way we framed that session, we had a slide up that said, “How we’ll work.” And it said, “Trust it, bring it, name it, ask it, close it.” What it means is trust it, so the process, like, “We’re going to go through something and it’s on purpose.” Bring it, you’re here for a reason. Like, “We need to hear what you have to say. If you don’t, then don’t be here.” You know?
Kevan: Third, name it, like, “When you’re sensing conflict, let’s talk about it. If we aren’t able to name it, then we’re not able to move through what we’re here to do.” Fourthly, ask it, even if it’s dumb, you got to ask your questions. Otherwise, everybody’s left wondering. Lastly, close it, as in your devices, no devices in the room. We have to be attentive to what we’re doing together because it’s this high bandwidth medium of in-person communication, and in-person listening, that we are going to make enormous, tremendous gains and attention will be needed to do that.
Kevan: I’ve found that that slide was referenced every single day of the five days we spent together with that particular group of people, saying, “Thank you for giving us permission to call out stuff we were wrestling with, to ask dumb questions. It’s so rare for us to be in an environment where it’s okay for us to raise challenges, and we found that they’re being welcomed and absorbed into the work that we’re doing there, and it’s making a huge difference to how we’re working together.”
Ceri Rees: You know what’s so important there, Kevan, is making the implicit explicit. Because otherwise we swerve back to cultural norms, whether it’s a country or a group of people or an organization. Really it becomes a question of almost Attica of how we do things here, and it’s unspoken, it’s unsaid, and it really relies on people who have some level of privilege of having been around a long time, they know how things are done, this kind of thing. Whereas when you make rules explicit, it actually is a leveler. And I know it doesn’t feel very cool and very West Coast and very kind of free and easy, but actually I think it brings ease and it brings freedom when we can actually be clear together and say, “This is how we’ve agreed that we’ll show up.”
Ceri Rees: But I think what it does ask of us as well, and almost this language or kind of good controversy, that there’s a good kind of controversy that actually can be helpful for us in structured ways, in mindful ways, that can actually, yeah, be clarifying and cleansing for a group of people. But it requires that we say things, and I’ve noticed that it’s too easy to not say things, to say many, many words without ever saying a thing, if that makes sense. So to actually say something with a firm conclusion, that invites people to say I agree or I disagree. But when we kind of, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, this and that,” and never quite say the thing, then everyone’s left wondering, “Wait, what was that that he was saying? I don’t know if I agree or disagree. I mean, I didn’t come back at it, I just didn’t know what it meant.” So to kind of like return to the power of conviction, “I’m happy to be wrong, I’m happy to be contradicted, but this is where I’m at right now.” Give me a reason to think other than that.
Kevan: Yeah, and Ceri, with that too is giving the facilitator or speaker at the time permission to say, “I don’t know.” Some of the reasons why we fill the space with talking or sound like we want to say something when we have nothing to say, is because we don’t actually have an opinion or a stance. And as a facilitator or a listener, I really relish opportunities to simply say that as clearly as I can. “I don’t have an answer for you. That’s really interesting. Does anybody else in the room have an answer to that?” I’m not trying to be the smartest person in the room. I just want us to get to the productive place we’re trying to get to. So just saying when I don’t have the answer means we can keep looking for it somewhere else.
Ceri Rees: Yeah, I think so, and I’ve noticed a tendency because so much of that can be posturing and people make up that they know things about things that they really don’t. We then swung to the other side in which, you listen to podcasts or whatever and the question is asked and they just say, “I don’t know anything about that. I couldn’t possibly speak to it.” There’s a humility in that which I like. But I also kind of wonder, “Well, where is that creative space of play?” So I don’t know anything about that, but I know about this thing and I know about this thing, and I know about this thing, and when I bring those together, it makes me wonder, “Could it be something like this?” So, it’s a delicate balance I think.
Ceri Rees: Kevan, I totally affirm you. I myself love to say, “I don’t know. What’s your sense of that?” Because very often, again, when people ask the question, it’s because they actually have a perspective and they’re asking a question because again, they meant to say a thing and didn’t quite manage it.
Veronica: Yeah. They felt like it might be just a little too much.
Ceri Rees: Yeah. But giving them back that opportunity here, “I sense you’ve got some knowledge to bring forward here. You’ve got some experience, we’d love to hear that.”
Veronica: Yeah, and when I think of like play and creative confidence, I do think of people we work with like Kevan, but I think that that’s often a kind of invisible strength, is that people who are creative in the moment or are okay with being playful, there’s a confidence, a hard one confidence underlying that. I mean, I think of IDEO and David Kelly’s like original work on creative confidence, and it’s kind of become a cliche, but there’s some truth to that. I think it’s similar to what’s required to listen well as well. There’s a confidence, like we keep talking about, it’s not about ego. There’s a confidence that underlies the ability to listen, to hold space, and also to have an opinion or an ability to put something together on the spot.
Ceri Rees: And the humility of that.
Veronica: The humility.
Ceri Rees: To say, “I don’t know this and I haven’t read it in a book, but I’m willing to just take an idea and see where it goes.”
More from Season 2
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